Monday, November 19, 2012

What I Learned from Fishbone

Back the 1980s when I was in my teens and early 20’s, many of us who lived in Southern California had musical tastes that seemed to be wildly divergent from people in the rest of the country.  While Michael Jackson and Madonna were topping the charts nationwide, California was home to a more raucous musical scene, full of the livelier sounds of punk, ska and reggae.

We followed local bands like X, The Untouchables, Sublime and Agent Orange.  We liked The Dead Kennedy’s and The Vandals.  From the UK we listened to UB40 and the English Beat.  Another local band that was very popular among my crowd at the time was the punk-ska group Fishbone.

Last summer when I was living up in Mammoth Lakes, California, Agent Orange and Fishbone played a free show along with two other acts.  Seeing Agent Orange was like a trip down memory lane, but I had to leave early and missed Fishbone entirely, much to my dismay.

So I was quite happy when I was standing at the urinal at the Akvarium Club in Budapest on Friday night and saw the upcoming schedule posted on the wall in front of me.  Fishbone, coming Sunday!  I couldn’t miss them twice.

Even better, I found out that a guy I know in town was screening the Fishbone documentary, Everyday Sunshine, in the attic of a small pub nearby before the show.

So last night about 20 of us gathered under the eaves in the attic and watched the documentary together.  It told the story of Norwood Fisher, the pragmatic founder and bass player, and his struggles to keep it all together over more than 30 years of drama and upheaval.  It showed Angelo Moore, the charismatic and artistically sensitive lead singer yearning for self-expression.  It talked of Kendall Jones, the lead guitarist who spun out of control and ran off to join his father’s cult after his mother passed away.

The thing that is most striking about this film, and about the lives of these musicians, is that the dream they share is so potent, and yet in some ways seemingly just out of reach.  They had an enormous influence on many bands that came after them, like No Doubt and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.  These bands went on to stardom and great commercial success.

And Fishbone?  They have struggled to survive.  Angelo had to move back in with his mother when he was evicted from his home.  The rest have a hard time making ends meet and most of the original members ended up quitting the band along the way.  A great live act with a few hits locally, they never managed to have a big hit nationwide.  Some say their songs are just too hard to categorize.  They do their own thing and can’t have it any other way.

What is inspiring about their story is that Angelo and Norwood just refuse to give up, and they seem like such good guys that you can’t help but want the best for them.  They love making music, as though it was the reason they were put on this earth.  And maybe it was.  I’m sure that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  Even after they were dropped by their music label and most of the original members had peeled off, Norwood and Angelo keep on plugging away, putting out new music and touring.

Watching the movie, I found myself a little bit concerned about what might happen to these guys if and when they just can’t do it anymore.  How will they survive?  But then, the beauty of it is that they are surviving, and somehow you know that they’ll persevere.  Angelo’s mother may not completely understand him, but you can see how deeply she loves him.  Norwood may be living in a tiny apartment, but he’s right by the beach in Venice and embracing his life.  He’s learned to surf and to snowboard and seems to make the most of every day.  Perhaps most importantly, they have each other, even if that has been difficult at times as well.

All of this begs the question of what really constitutes success in the end.  Michael Jackson was also an African-American performer from Los Angeles, and roughly the same age as these guys.  He ended up becoming one of the wealthiest and most famous performers of all time.  That constitutes success in our society, but was he happy?  Arguably not. 

Michael Jackson had wealth and he had fame, but his was a tormented soul, and that torment ultimately led to his demise.  Angelo and Norwood have struggled along the way, but they wake up every day and keep going.  They play the music that sustains them and find beauty in the everyday world.

In many ways I find that my own story has much in common with these guys.  I started pursuing a career as a fiction writer more than 25 years ago.  In that time I’ve written more novels, screenplays and non-fiction books than I can even keep track of.  I’ve lived on a dream just as potent as theirs, but had only small successes so far.

It was only two years ago that I started to make a living from my fiction, but even then it wasn’t enough to survive in my home state.  I’ve had to come halfway around the world to Budapest just to find an interesting place to live where I can actually afford the rent.

Part of the reason that my career hasn’t taken off so far is that my novels are hard to categorize.  I do my own thing and can’t have it any other way.  I’ve picked up some fans along the way, but I’m still looking toward the future.  Mostly, I write because I simply can’t see myself doing anything else.

The lesson I take from Angelo and Norwood is that even if your dreams are not fully realized, it is a fool’s errand to base success on the standards of others.  I would argue that success is having people in your life that love and care about you.  It is doing what you are inspired to do.  And it is enjoying this short time that we have on the planet as much as we possibly can.

By those measures, I would indeed consider my life so far a success.  I have good friends and family who care for me.  I write what I am inspired to write.  I’ve lived and enjoyed my life as much as possible, including last night at the Fishbone show here in Budapest.  Not only did they bring the house down, but they seemed to be having a great time doing it even after all these years.

So to the guys in Fishbone, great to see you keep on keeping on, living the dream by your rules and making the most of whatever that brings.  I’ll try to set the same example.  After all, success by one’s own standards is the only true success.

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